Inspiringly artful ‘Books’ ‘imbued with artist’s soul’

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Artists’ books come in all shapes and sizes, as the landmark “The Book as Art: Twenty Years of Artists’ Books From the National Museum of Women in the Arts” exuberantly demonstrates.

They can appear as simulated lettuce (Katherine A. Glover’s “Green Salad”), memorialize the death of a husband (Elisabetta Gut’s “Volo-volume” (“Flight-volume”), present a layered world landscape (Carol Barton’s “Tunnel Map”) or arrive as an exquisitely beautiful onyx container (Mirella Bentivoglio’s “To Malherbe”).

So, what has happened to the two-dimensional, mechanically printed books we ordinarily use? Exhibit curator Krystyna Wasserman, also museum curator of book arts, answers:

“Artists’ books, unlike mass-produced books, are always individual creations, with a special spirituality and humanity to them. Some seem imbued with the artist’s soul, unlike our everyday books.”

The museum built one of America’s finest collections of the genre, and the 108 unique and limited-edition books shown — culled from the total of 1,000 — represent the museum’s best. While it takes an almost superhuman effort to adequately survey this extraordinary show, it’s well worth the effort.

“Artists’ books first developed as a vehicle for 1960s feminists’ messages, then grew into more serious aesthetic statements and experiments,” the curator says.

Moreover, the show includes most artistic mediums and techniques of bookmaking. Unusual formats such as unfolding accordions, scrolls, pop-ups, fans and tunnel books, among others, appear throughout.

Miss Barton’s “Five Luminous Towers: A Book to Be Read in the Dark” (offset print, bulb, wire, board and Japanese book cloth) shows just how astonishing these books can be.

“In Italy — where I had a grant to study traditional Italian towers — I had the idea of revisiting the challenge of combining light and paper engineering in an artist’s book,” Miss Barton writes in the catalog. “I envisioned a volume of dimensional towers where light and shadow played against the architecture of pop-up paper structures.”

Clearly, she’s eminently successful.

The show would have been confusing had not Miss Wasserman divided it into nine themes: Storytellers; Autobiographers; Historians; Mothers, Daughters and Wives; Dreamers and Magicians; Travelers; Nature; Food and the Body; and Inspired by the Muses.

Dreams and the subconscious have fascinated 20th-century artists, especially women, and Elisabetta Gut’s “Volo-volume” is a fine example. In this especially moving work, she expresses the anguish of her husband’s death in paper, wood, wool and spray paint.

“The book opens to the blackest and most disturbing page of my life,” she writes in the catalog — and it could predict the darkest days of our lives, also.

Claire Van Vliet’s “Dream of the Dirty Woman” illustrates Elka Schumann’s sad/happy play about a woman imprisoned in the Bastille during the French Revolution. A female guard helps “the Dirty Woman” escape, and the woman eventually marries a rich man.

A distinct contrast is Julie Chen’s complicated, colorful letterpress on paper, Fimo, polymer clay and Plexiglas, “Bon Bon Mots.” Representing a succulent box of candy, it’s one of the show’s high points.

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